Why millions of Christmas packages will be late this year

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Americans hoping their packages will arrive in time for a Christmas Day celebration may be in for a rude awakening this year.

Just days before the holiday, both public and private shippers are experiencing major delays, in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Increased demand during the holiday rush amid an unprecedented economic crisis while the government is entrusting companies with life-saving vaccine deliveries has led to a maelstrom of errors. 


The U.S. Postal Service delivers hundreds of millions of packages every holiday season, but the agency has been in dire straits in 2020 — receiving $10 billion from the U.S. Department of the Treasury in order to continue operating during the pandemic.

The Postal Service is also under additional pressure to deliver bills, medications, financial stimulus checks, and process absentee ballots ahead of the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs.

Complicating matters further is that nearly 19,000 of its 644,000 workers called in sick or were forced to isolate during the months-long pandemic, according to the American Postal Workers Union.

In a Dec. 14 press release, workers pleaded with the American public to send gifts early.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in August 2020. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

"While every year, the Postal Service carefully plans for peak holiday season, a historic record of holiday volume compounded by a temporary employee shortage due to the COVID-19 surge, and capacity challenges with airlifts and trucking for moving this historic volume of mail are leading to temporary delays," they wrote. "These challenges are being felt by shippers across the board."

In a video message posted the same day, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said that they were expecting up to a third more packages than in 2019. The agency reported that through Dec. 12, parcel volume was up by 14%.

Postal facilities are overflowing and some processing plants have refused to accept new mail shipments leaving packages sitting on trucks for days on end, according to The Washington Post.

Employees who were not sickened by the virus or new hires are now working extreme hours — some without weekends since Thanksgiving, The Post reported.

Performance has suffered following DeJoy's summertime cost cuts — which he said were made due to a decline in first-class mail — though e-commerce shopping skyrocketed as families made purchases from the comfort of their couches.

Small businesses that regularly use the Postal Service also felt the negative effect — with many relying on holiday deliveries to cushion losses throughout the pandemic.

In response to similar challenges, private shippers like UPS and FedEx have also told customers to send packages early. FedEx's deadline to arrive by Christmas Day was Dec. 9 for SmartPost and Dec. 16 for ground shipping.

UPS said Dec. 21 was the last day for 3-Day Select® delivery, Dec. 22 for two-day air, and Dec. 23 for next-day air.

Retailers like J.C. Penney and Kohl’s are giving discounts as an incentive for shoppers to pick up online orders in-person and others like Macy's and Best Buy have partnered with services like DoorDash and Instacart. 


Nevertheless, on-time delivery rates have decreased, according to shipping technology company ShipMatrix.

Between Dec. 13 and 17, UPS had the highest rate at almost 95%, FedEx hovered slightly above 92%, and the Postal Service was just above 86%.

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